I decided to look specifically at Goalkeeper distribution from the mid-week MLS games (7/3-7/4). I wanted to look at the differences in outcomes between "long" passes (what OPTA calls "launches" and other 40+ yard efforts) and "short" passes. This seems simple enough. You would expect a much higher completion rate for the short passes and much lower for those booming goal kicks. However, I wanted to take my analysis a step further by looking at the outcomes of each of these possessions. I used three possible outcomes (many more could have been used): turnover on own half, turnover on other half, or attempt on goal. Admittedly, this is a small sample size but I think there are still some interesting results, though they are pretty intuitive.
As seen above, those long hopeful boots down the field are completed at a paltry rate of 38%. It should be further noted that many of these "completions" are to lone attackers who are quickly disposessed even if they are lucky enough to control it. Of course the converse is that while these short passes are essentially sure things, the defender or midfielder must still find a way to break down the first line of defense, leaving them vulnerable to the dreaded turnover in their own half. Below find a summary of these findings:
It is not necessarily apparent that one approach is better than another. Again, this is a small sample size and attempts on goal are not always how you define a successful possession. One thing does stick out to me: while the number of turnovers in a team's own half is much higher when using short passes, teams still seem able to advance the ball fairly easily past midfield (81% of the time). Also, I should point out that teams that use short GK passes seem to be more comfortable playing this way (and vice versa for non- short passing teams) as can be seen by this chart. This may also be a reflection of how much defensive pressure the opposing team was exerting:
Also of interest, the differences in approach between goalkeepers can sometimes be quite stark. The comparison between Troy Perkins vs. San Jose (most long-ball heavy) and Matt Pickens vs. Vancouver (most short-pass heavy) illustrates this.
What does all this tell us? Well, not a lot that we didn't already suspect. If a team has the ability to play from the back, it certainly seems preferable. This is especially true when holding the lead and looking to kill time. Goalkeeper distribution is not unlike a punter or a special teams unit in American Football (hear me out, I know it is a ridiculous comparison) in that you're not often going to score off of these plays, but they are important for field position. And field position is important.